Australia’s ballistic missile defence options

Australia’s ballistic missile defence options

Australia benefits from its traditional role as a ‘vital ally’ of the United States – but this also puts the country at risk from America’s enemies. With North Korea seeking to weaken US alliances and looking for potential targets, ballistic missile defence is  being considered by the Australian government. GRI explores whether this is a realistic option.

Australia’s contribution to its partnership with the US has historically been significant, despite a modestly-sized military. In its Northern Territory, Australia supports US intelligence gathering in the Indo-Pacific by providing the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility. In Hawaii, the Deputy Commanding General of the United States Army Pacific is an Australian senior officer. These defence ties also have the official seal of the ANZUS Treaty. In short, the Australian and US militaries are ‘joined at the hip’.

Australia’s alliance with the US is of course in line with its own interests. Without it, Australia would need to increase defence spending significantly. Most Australians support a strong alliance with the US even if they don’t like Donald Trump. Thus, the likelihood of an Australian Government withdrawing from such a mutually beneficial partnership is negligible.

But it is precisely the strength and depth of the alliance that makes Australia a target for the US’ adversaries.

Australia: a potential target for North Korea

North Korea knows that Australia houses vital US intelligence facilities and even US troops. Australia would be an attractive target for a North Korean strike, as serious damage could be inflicted on both Australian and US defence infrastructure. A successful North Korean strike would also test the credibility of US guarantees, which is part of Pyongyang’s broader strategy.

North Korea currently has operational nuclear devices and an operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can travel between 4,000-15,000 kilometres, making it capable in principle of targeting mainland Australia. As the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Brad Roberts has noted recently, “Australia doesn’t really get to choose whether or not North Korea threatens it”.

Like Japan, the Australia Government has the option of acquiring a missile defence capability, and is considering doing so, in what seems like a reasonable and proportionate response to the threat represented by North Korea. However, such a move would face substantial issues of cost and effectiveness.

Ballistic missile defence options for Australia

On the ground, Lockheed Martin’s ‘Terminal High Altitude Area Defence’ (THAAD) has an impressive record at intercepting ballistic missiles, especially in the ‘boost phase’ of their trajectory. However, Australia’s geography means that it cannot intercept an ICBM at the boost phase of its trajectory, which makes THAAD unsuitable for Australia.

Another ground-based system is the ‘Ground-based Midcourse Defence’ (GMD), which is deployed by the US in Alaska to intercept missiles in the terminal phase of their trajectory. The problem with this system is that only 10 of GMD’s 18 tests have been successful as mid-course discrimination is notoriously difficult. Therefore, of the two ground-based BMD systems, one is unsuitable for Australia’s needs and the other may well not be good enough to work.

The only viable BMD option for Australia is a maritime one. A recent defence acquisition illustrates this point: Australia has just commissioned the HMAS Hobart Air Warfare Destroyers, which some have called the country’s ‘deadliest warship’. These destroyers are fitted with Lockheed Martin’s Aegis combat system that, according to the Royal Australian Navy, is capable of ‘engaging enemy aircraft and missiles at ranges in excess of 150 kilometres.’

According to Professor John Blaxland at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, there are a number of BMD systems suitable for Australia’s needs that can be integrated into Aegis – notably the SM-3 and the SM-6. However, given SM-6’s enviable test record, Australia may well see it as the most attractive capability. The SM-6 is unlike other sea-based BMD systems in the sense that it is capable of intercepting ballistic missiles in the terminal phase of their trajectory.

Sea-based technologies are Australia’s best prospect

Australia’s unique geography, and the new threats it faces from North Korea, makes national BMD both important and challenging. Ground-based BMD is unlikely to fit Australia’s strategic needs. However, recent developments in sea-based technologies and the commissioning of the HMAS Hobart offer Australia an opportunity for BMD. Fitting the new HMAS Hobart with Raytheon’s SM-6 would reduce long-term risk. Although it may not provide Australia with a comprehensive BMD shield, it may be the only system Australia could acquire that would be reliable enough to intercept a North Korean ICBM.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Charles Lyons Jones

Charlie is a Chinese-speaking expert in strategic developments in Northeast Asia and is based in Taiwan. He holds a degree from the University of Melbourne and worked at the Australian Trade and Investment Commission in Beijing.